Few countries celebrate the holiday season with as much gusto as they do in Colombia. December is basically a byword for drinking, eating, dancing and celebrating. So much do Colombians enjoy this time of year that they will excitedly tell you that December has 'already begun' in November. This festive spirit survives past the New Year and, for some, lasts well into January.
There are a number of traditions which are particular to this time of year. The music style porro is the most widely heard Latin music during December, which is far removed from the sleigh bells and traditional Christmas songs of North America and Europe. Popular foods include natillas, a flan like dessert made from milk, brown sugar, cinnamon and flour, and buñuelos, a fried dough ball which tastes something like a donut.
Christmas lights are a hugely important component of the festive period
Christmas lights are also a hugely important component of the holiday season. Municipal authorities spend vast sums on striking displays, especially in cities such as Bogota, Medellin and Cali. The turning on of the lights is generally accompanied by a ceremonial event and music festival. Suburban areas see neighbors engage in rounds of 'keeping up with the Joneses' as they compete to outdo each other with the garishness of their Christmas light displays.
In Medellin, the onset of December is even celebrated with great fanfare by the unofficial alborada event. At the stroke of midnight on 30th November / 1st December, thousands of fireworks are set off right across the city, even in the poorest neighborhoods, to welcome in the Christmas season. This is a fairly recent tradition, dating back only to 2003, and began when a notorious paramilitary organisation distributed fireworks among the areas under their control to mark their demobilization.
The alborada today is quite a sight to witness. Within the space of a couple of minutes, literally thousands of fireworks are let off across the entire city. If you can get to high ground to watch this, then make sure you do. It is something to behold. The downside is that poor control off the fireworks by many of those setting them off leads to the injury of tens of people every year. For this reason, authorities have attempted to clampdown on the tradition over recent years, but apparently to little avail.
On the Day of the Little Candles families light large numbers of candles and place them outside their homes and on the balconies
The first official national celebration is on 7th December (and in some cities also on the 8th) on the Day of the Little Candles (día de las velitas). On this day, one day before a religious ceremony to celebrate the immaculate conception, families light large numbers of candles and place them outside their homes and on the balconies. The tradition is that this will illuminate the path for the Virgin Mary to come and bless their residence. The hundreds of candles lining the streets of Colombia’s cities grant the place an enjoyable feeling of serenity and calm. This relaxed sensation later gives way to more fireworks, parties and dancing.
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For the nine days prior to Christmas, families gather in the evenings for traditional foods, songs and other festivities typical for this time of year. Families in Bogota also usually play various games of the season, known collectively as aguinaldos. The main celebration itself is on the 24th December, rather than the 25th. This is the day when the main Christmas meal is prepared, featuring dishes such as ajiaco, tamales, sancocho, stuffed turkey and smoked pork leg. After midnight, those assembled then exchange gifts.
New Year celebrations are calmer than in Europe and North America and Colombians spend the evening with their families
A few days later, Colombia celebrates Innocent Saints Day, the local equivalent of April Fool’s Day, on which it is traditional to play light hearted pranks. The final event in the December calendar is the celebration of New Year on 31st December. New Year celebrations are generally a little calmer than in Europe and North America and Colombians spend the evening with their families, reflecting on the year that has passed and the one that is about to come.
There are several superstitions which locals may engage in on this date. These include: walking around the block with an empty suitcase to symbolize your hopes for lots of travel in the upcoming year; wearing yellow underwear for good luck, and eating 12 grapes, each of which has a particular significance.